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Doing Research

Constructing effective search strategies

Search strategy 1: Identify keywords
What is a keyword?

Keywords are impact words representing some of the main concepts in a research topic. These words can be used as a query when using a discovery tool, an online catalog or databases to retrieve relevant information sources.

Turn your research question into Keywords

Your research question includes the keywords which are relevant to your topic. This is why you should extract them from your research question and use them in searching

E.g. Does electronic surveillance threaten privacy?

Impact words: electronic surveillance privacy

Avoid noise words like does, or threaten. These keywords do not add meaning or don’t carry any content value. Your research will result to in an understanding about how and if electronic surveillance threatens privacy. Using noise words may prevent you from retrieving sufficient results.

Search strategy 2: Refine keywords

You can refine keywords by

  • Combining more than one search terms in a search statement.
  • Substituting your search terms with broader terms to expand retrieval.
  • Substituting your search terms with narrower terms to restrict retrieval.
  • Use related terms, words which are closely related to another term conceptually.
  • Use synonym words or phrases that have the same (or very nearly the same) meaning as another term in the same language.

Example:   Search terms: nightmare disorder

Synonym: bad dream

Broader terms: sleep disorder

Narrower terms: insomnia

Related terms: REM sleep

Tips: To find more terms relevant on your topic start from a relevant reading, your textbook, or browse sources on the internet.

Search strategy 3: Use authors keywords or database subjects
Authors’ Keywords

Authors who publish their work, also assign keywords to this work.  Author keywords describe their research topic. Using these keywords to perform searches may help you find more relevant sources. These keywords usually appear on the first page of an article, right after the abstract.

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Authors’ keywords may prove to be simple words relevant to your topic like divorce or more sophisticated terms like intergenerational transmission of divorce that you could not easily think yourself.

Database subjects

Databases provide subjects that describe the sources which they include. You can use these subjects as search terms. You can also click and follow them to find sources on this particular topic. The subject terms are assigned to the sources by database specialists who organize the sources in the database.

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Search strategy 4: Use truncation & phrase search

Truncation is the addition of a symbol at the beginning or end of a word stem in a keywords search to retrieve variants containing the root. In most discovery tools, online catalogs and bibliographic databases, the end truncation symbol is the asterisk (*). Truncation is particularly useful in retrieving both the singular and the plural forms of a word in the same search. As a general rule, it is not recommended to truncate fewer than four characters.

Example: art* retrieves:

artist

artistic

artistry

artwork

artichoke

Phrase Search is a type of search that allows users to search for sources containing an exact phrase rather than containing a set of keywords in random order. The term refers to a specific search syntax which involves using quotation marks (") around a specific phrase of a search query.

Example: “Electronic surveillance” will produce results that contain both words as an exact phrase.

Search strategy 5: Use Boolean logic

Boolean logic uses operators help to narrow or broaden your search. The most common ones are AND, OR, NOT. These operators can help you connect keywords or concepts.

Boolean Operators Example Search results Why to use it

AND

Finds all terms included in a search query

divorce

AND

children

To narrow down search results.

Good practice when you want to combine more than one search terms.

Tip: most searching tools imply the AND between keywords so you don’t have to type it. 

OR

Finds one or either terms included in a search query

organic foods

OR

natural foods

To expand search results.

Good practice when there is more than one commonly used set of keywords that describe a topic.

NOT

Finds the first term included in a query but not the second

Greek history

NOT

ancient

To narrow down search results.

Good practice to use it when annoying words pop up in your results.

Search strategy 6: Add or remove search limiters

Limiters are features that are available in almost any search tool like discoveries, online catalogs or databases. They allow you to employ various parameters to restrict the retrieval of information. Limiters vary but typically include: publication date, material format or type, language, full-text, peer-reviewed (journal articles), and location

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Search strategy 7: Identify variables & perspectives

Variables: The impact words that are related to your topic may not be enough for searching for information. Placing your topic in context may help you identify the variables which may be affecting it.

Types of variables: 

  • Time period e.g. world war II
  • Race e.g. African - Americans
  • Age e.g. adolescence
  • Gender e.g. men, boys
  • Geography / location /culture e.g. European Union, middle class, hip hop

Perspectives: Τhe perspective about your topic may also impact your searching. For instance you could do research on adoption. You could investigate the topic from the point of view of gay and lesbian couples who wish to adopt children.  But you could pick another perspective and research the topic from the point of view of adoptees and if they should have the right to know their biological parents.